Steve Hansen wore his usual look of indifference to the media conference in central Tokyo earlier this week. ‘You probably can’t tell as much by the look on my face,’ the All Blacks coach said, ‘but I’m really excited about this game.’
Players and coaches on both sides of the Springboks-All Blacks divide have made similar comments – and have worn similar expressions – when facing the media in official media conferences this week. Everyone has worked hard to project an image of composure.
And yet, when I’ve bumped into a few of the same players and coaches around the Bok team hotel, they’ve admitted to feeling increasingly nervous in the long buildup to the showdown in Yokohama.
There’s a new swagger about this Bok side – and without being arrogant, they’ve grown in this respect since arriving in Japan. There’s also a healthy sense of perspective: the job is far from done.
The Japanese people have embraced the Boks wholeheartedly. Players from both sides can be seen on various billboards overlooking the manically busy Shibuya Crossing. The Bok poster – featuring Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, and Beast Mtawarira – is larger and more prominent, though. From a distance, it’s hard to make out exactly who the All Blacks players are.
Dare I say it, the Boks are bigger in Japan than the All Blacks.
The Boks can expect the locals’ support at the Yokohama Stadium later today. Many neutrals will be hoping for an upset – as despite recent results the All Blacks remain the favourites to win this World Cup.
Again, this is the reality that the South African coaches and players would do well to keep in mind until the final whistle has blown. Only a win will challenge the status quo.
Hansen and company are viewing this game as an opportunity to prove a point. Going by what’s been asked and said by local and foreign journalists in the media conferences this week, there’s a growing respect for what the Boks are trying to achieve on and off the field. On the other hand, there’s a perception – and Hansen did become animated when he was pressed on this point – that the All Blacks are not as strong as they were in 2015 and that the time has come for another king to sit on rugby’s iron throne.
It’s been interesting to note how the respective characters in the phony war have engaged via the media. The Boks have highlighted the importance of fair officiating and have ultimately suggested that the All Blacks should not receive preferential treatment in Yokohama today.
The All Blacks have employed the well-worn tactic of painting an unflattering picture of the Boks ‘simple yet effective’ game plan. As always, it’s a dig aimed at goading the South Africans into a more expansive approach.
Fortunately, this Bok side is too smart to fall into such an obvious trap. They’ve scored some excellent, well-worked tries over the past two years and have proved lethal from turnover ball.
The assertion that they are a boring side is baseless and, when you really think about it, pointless.
The Bok game plan still hinges on a strong kicking game and Faf de Klerk is key in this respect. They would be foolish to move away from a strategy that has brought them success against the All Blacks in recent times.
A number of heavy clouds were circling central Tokyo on Saturday morning. Heavy rain is expected during the game in Yokohama this evening.
The Boks would be mad to run at the All Blacks in those conditions, and everything points to them kicking for territory or putting up a series of high balls in order to exploit an inexperienced All Blacks back three. Their rush defence will aim to unsettle an All Blacks halfback combination that needs front-foot ball to operate.
The decision to start Beauden Barrett in a back-three combination that includes World Cup newcomers George Bridge and Sevu Reece appears to be an unnecessary gamble when the All Blacks have one of the great high-ball exponents in Ben Smith. If the Boks win the collisions in the early stages and De Klerk has enough time and space to kick for his wingers to chase, the All Blacks could be in trouble.
The call to opt for a more mobile loose trio may also backfire if the ball and underfoot conditions are wet. The All Blacks forwards’ intention to outpace and outlast their Bok counterparts may well play into the South Africans’ hands.
Between 2012 and 2015, the Boks competed with the All Blacks for 60 to 70 minutes before running out of steam in the final moments. This Bok side is in terrific shape – as recent images posted on social media confirm – and conditioning shouldn’t be an issue at the business end of this contest.
How both sets of players cope with the pressure at that stage will be result-shaping, though, and will ultimately show where the Boks and All Blacks stand in the World Cup title conversation.